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Where the Marijuana Legalization Movement Began



I’d like to offer my most profound thanks to Amy Cantu and her people at the Ann Arbor District Library for their heroic efforts in dredging up the past and making it live again in the digital age at their new website called, which further includes every page of the underground newspaper known as the Ann Arbor and Detroit Sun in digital form.

The AADL also sponsored two days of events in Ann Arbor celebrating the John Sinclair Freedom Rally of Dec. 10, 1971, including a free concert at the Ark featuring Commander Cody and my own band with special surprise guest Wayne Kramer of the MC-5 joining Jeff Grand on guitar.

The second day of the festivities included a library-sponsored panel discussion centered on the Freedom Rally and the struggle to legalize marijuana, and a reunion of the White Panther Party and its successor, the Rainbow People’s Party, reuniting a whole lot of people who first carried the banner for marijuana legalization in Michigan back in the 1960s and early ’70s.

You probably already know that I just celebrated my 40th anniversary of being released from Jackson Prison on Dec. 13, 1971, after serving 29 months of a 9-1/2- to 10-year sentence for possession of two joints on Dec. 22, 1966.

Actually I’d been charged with giving the two joints to an undercover policewoman from the Detroit Police Department who had disguised herself as a human being to ask me a favor I couldn’t refuse. It was three days before Christmas and she wanted a joint to take home, so I gave her two.

Giving away, or “dispensing,” two joints of marijuana — then classified by the
state as a narcotic — carried the same penalty upon conviction as selling a few hundred pounds of heroin: a minimum mandatory 20 years in the penitentiary, with a possible maximum sentence of life imprisonment.

From my arrest in Detroit on Jan. 24, 1967, to my release from prison almost five years later, I carried on a fight against the Michigan marijuana laws that ended in March 1972 when the Michigan Supreme Court overturned my conviction and ruled that marijuana was in fact not a narcotic and a sentence of 10 years for possession of marijuana constituted cruel and unusual punishment — just as I had argued in my appeal.

My struggle was aided, abetted and fully supported every step of the way by that indispensable element of a successful legal battle: a great team of dedicated attorneys, led by Sheldon Otis and Justin C. Ravitz, that was motivated not by chance of profit but by intense social conviction. This brilliant team of attorneys and legal workers took up my case and advanced it exactly as I had intended from the beginning.

I wanted to overthrow the marijuana laws, get them declared unconstitutional, put an end to the idiotic classification of marijuana as a narcotic, get rid of the imbecilic and sadistic sentencing structure, and — in the final analysis — legalize marijuana. Most of all I wanted to get the police out of the lives of marijuana smokers and indeed, all recreational drug users.

The last two objectives haven’t yet been realized, although the citizens’ initiative to end marijuana prohibition in Michigan now being readied for 2012 may, if successful, finally bring us to full legalization, and that would certainly begin to remove the cops from our lives as smokers.

The legalization of medical marijuana has gone a long way in that direction, although Attorney General Schuette and his ilk are not at all prepared to give up their stranglehold on the throats of the smoking public, but I think it’s clear that their days are now numbered.

In my case, I never intended to go to prison to prove that marijuana was not a narcotic and that 10 years for two joints was cruel and unusual punishment. I fully expected to post an appeal bond and proceed with my life as an American while my appeal wound its way through the courts to the point where the Michigan Supreme Court would have to consider our arguments and ultimately rule in my favor.

But Judge Robert J. Columbo considered me an unrepentant offender — not an inaccurate assessment — who deserved to be incarcerated without bond, and he sent me straight to Jackson Prison to begin my 10-year sentence. Then I was shipped to Marquette in the Upper Peninsula for a year under maximum security, returned to Jackson and held in an isolation block until shortly before my release.

During the two-and-a-half years of my imprisonment, my lawyers, my political associates, scores of bands and thousands of our supporters rallied on my behalf in a series of countless benefits, protests, press conferences, and other events designed to “Free John Now,” culminating in the John Sinclair Freedom Rally at Crisler Arena in Ann Arbor on Friday, Dec. 10, 1971.

But we also lobbied hard in the state Legislature during that period for a change in the narcotics laws, and on Dec. 9 the lawmakers voted to reclassify marijuana as a “controlled substance” and reduce the penalties to one year for possession and four years for sales or dispensing the evil weed. My appeal had been argued before the Michigan Supreme Court in October 1971 and was pending decision, so the judges decided that I could now be granted an appeal bond — having already served 2-1/2 times the new maximum sentence for possession.

On Monday, Dec. 13, I walked out of the prison gates to resume my life in Ann Arbor as chairman of the Rainbow People’s Party and creative director of the Rainbow Multi-Media Corporation, a nonprofit artists’ management and production company. Like I keep saying, that was 40 years ago this month, and hopefully this will be the last we hear about these events for at least another 10.

So many of the positive things that people accomplished back then has been erased from the official record and kept from the awareness of the people coming up, who are encouraged to believe that there’s not much one can do about the oppressive conditions one finds oneself living under in the 21st century. Just now, that tide is starting to turn as well, and the contemporary movement needs all the information about past struggles that we can make available to them.

So thanks again to the Ann Arbor District Library for bringing it all back home this month, and as you begin to take up the cudgel for ending marijuana prohibition in 2012, take a droll stroll through the electronic pages of the digital edition of theAnn Arbor Sun and follow the progress of the legalization movement when it began, way back in the day.

By the time you read this I intend (the gods of travel willing) to be back in Amsterdam for the holidays and the beginning of the new year. I’ll be back in two weeks with a report from Viper Central on the current efforts of the Dutch government to catch up with the leaders of the international War on Drugs. Happy New Year’s, everybody!

John Sinclair, founder of the White Panthers, is a poet. His latest book is It’s All Good.

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